What does this passage mean to you?
It’s arguably the most asked question by well-meaning leaders of Sunday schools, small group Bible studies, and other places where folk gather to learn God’s Word. It’s also one of the worst questions you can ask. Why? Because it makes our opinions the context of the passage. The problem is that the passage under study already has a context. You don’t give it one. It has one. The task of the Bible student is to know the context of the passage in order to interpret the passage. This is critical to understand because it’s the difference believing what God says and believing what you want it to say.
Take the oft-quoted passage Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” This verse has become the default Bible verse for Christian (and non-Christian) athletes around the nation. You see the Scripture reference written on wristbands, eyeblack, and even tattooed on various body parts. To hear testimonies about what Phil. 4:13 means is to come away with the prevalent idea that the player, through Jesus, can overcome any odds keeping him or her from victory on the field. Through Jesus you can throw more touchdown passes, hit more home runs, and sink more baskets leading you to triumph over your opponents. (This can be rather complicated when opposing teams are claiming the same verse but I digress). However, we can’t blame athletes who’ve taken this verse and given it a ‘You can do anything you want to do” Jesus-steroid context, I see it quoted by regular joe’s trying to score the big business deal, make an A on the final exam, or for just about anything they want to have divine success in.
The trouble however is, based on the “Supersize Me” meaning many give to the text, Philippians 4:13 isn’t true. In other words, you can’t do all things in Jesus. For example,
- You can’t win the 100 meter-dash in the Olympics with a broken leg no matter how much you have faith in Jesus.
- You can’t get perfect scores on your college finals and not study no matter how much faith you have in Jesus.
- You can’t leap over tall buildings in a single bound no matter how much you have faith in Jesus.
Why not Yancey? Doesn’t Phil. 4:13 say that Jesus strengthens me to do anything I want? Nope. Not at all. In fact, “all” is a good place to start. What is the “all things” that Paul says he can do in Jesus? Here’s a clue: look at the context of the passage. Not the one we give it, the one it already has. It’s pretty easy. Just read the two verses before v. 13:
11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.
Do you see what “all things” Paul is talking about? He tells us in verses 11-12. The “all things” is, through Jesus’ empowerment, learning to be content in whatever situation Paul finds himself. This isn’t some verse we can claim for divine approval of our personal goals be it on the ball field or in the boardroom. On the contrary, this verse is better applied in context when we lose the big game, miss out on the big account, or endure some other hardship which tempts us to find our ultimate contentment in something or someone outside of Jesus. In that biblical context, Phil. 4:13 is absolutely true! ! I can [be content in any circumstance] through Christ who strengthens me. Context matters!
That’s why if your “all things” is having success in anything you fancy, then I hate to break it to you, but you can’t do all things through Christ who strengthens you. But if it’s finding contentment in any and every situation, then you can do all things through Christ who strengthens you. Context matters!
So next time someone asks you what you think this or that verse means, tell him it really doesn’t matter what you think. You don’t give Scripture its context, it already has one. To miss this important point is to risk reading and applying the Bible incorrectly. Someone once said that a text without a context is a pretext. Good students of the Bible seek to discover a passage’s context so they can know what God says instead of falsely mirroring what we would like for him to say.